Mark Shea: Blessed are the hungry, the merciful, and the pure

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PHOTO: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Part 3 of Mark’s series exploring the Beatitudes

We continue our look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 by again noticing both their similarities and differences with Luke 6.

Perhaps the main thing to note is that Luke parallels Matthew in this portion of the Beatitudes in only one way: he records Jesus’ blessing on the hungry, but says nothing about the merciful or the pure in heart.

This does not, of course, mean that Luke does not care about mercy or purity. He will elsewhere record sayings of Jesus emphasising both of these virtues and will, indeed, preserve preaching of Jesus about the mercy of God (such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son) that no other gospel will record.

Rather, Luke is teaching by means of parallelism something that Matthew is not trying to say.  Both he and Matthew offer us eight, easy-to-memorise, bite-size sayings.  But Luke does it in the form of point/counterpoint—a blessing vs. a “woe to you”.  “Blessed are you poor/Woe to you who are rich. Blessed are you that hunger now/Woe to you that are full now. Blessed are you that weep now/Woe to you that laugh now. Blessed are you when men hate you/Woe to you, when all men speak well of you.”

Luke is all about talking to a congregation of Christians in which the contrast of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, wealthy and needy is a very present real world reality.  He is talking to those who hunger and are full now.  He is not only comforting the afflicted, but afflicting the comfortable.

It is a theme he will return to repeatedly, as when he (and he alone of all the evangelists) tells the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  Luke, more than any other evangelist, is at pains to remind us that, in the words of St John Chrysostom, “The rich exist for the sake of the poor.  The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” He wants us to see our responsibility to act in this world and not spiritualise away our practical responsibility in a haze of pious-speak.

Matthew is attempting something different.  He wants us to see that both sin and virtue are born in the heart.  That is why he will, in a moment, record Jesus saying things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

For the same reason, Matthew addresses those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”.  Like Jesus in the desert, he is taking pains to remind us that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Jesus follows up his blessing on the hunger for righteousness with a blessing on what many take for its opposite: mercy. Righteousness is taken by many as hunger for vengeful rectitude in which the guilty get what is coming to them.

On this view, mercy is seen either as a remedy for vengefulness or as wimpy liberal “soft on crime” failure of justice.  But in the kingdom, God’s mercy is his justice, because God is love and wills our redemption.  The punishments which sometimes attend sin are ordered toward our salvation, so the merciful receive mercy because they are open to it while we are punished by, not for, our sins.  Jesus, sent by the love of the Father comes to save us from our sins, not from his Father.

This leads to his blessing on the pure in heart which, like sin, has its reward in the very nature of what it is.  To be pure in heart is to will one thing: the Beatific Vision.  St Thomas Aquinas, when God offered him whatever his heart desired, replied to God, “I will have Thyself.”  That is purity of heart and its reward is God himself, who is the Happiness for which we are made.  To gain such purity of heart is, for most of us, a painful, lifelong business of purgation, which is nothing other than the process of becoming pure issuing in Heaven just as commitment to selfishness is itself Hell.

Next time, the hard blessings of peace and persecution.

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